In America recently, I was left agog by the food signs in a supermarket.
In the fruit and vegetable aisle, organic produce was labelled as such, and an unattractive bunch of specimens they were, too. The tomatoes looked like they’d been bludgeoned from the bush with a nail-studded bat and kicked all the way to the store. The potatoes had obviously been in a brawl with the onions. Great chunks had been bitten out of the celery by some fell beast with infected teeth. The shrunken apples had an air of forlorn jaundice, seeming to beg for a swift end.
Next to the organic selection was an area labelled traditionally grown. The contrast was like night and day. Plump, full fruits and veggies bursting with vibrant, stunning colour were arrayed in neat, uniform rows, all exactly the same size, with unblemished skins and wearing what only can be described as a lofty sneer in the direction of the organic section.
They were magnificent. They looked like glossy air-brushed magazine advertisements.
Curious, I asked a shop assistant what was meant by “traditionally grown”? Were these organic too, albeit with careful handlers and a more rigorous selection procedure? I was informed that “traditionally grown” means the producers get to use chemicals and genetic modification techniques. Y’know, like normal.
I really didn’t know what to say to that.
I’m not a big fan of food that’s been messed with on a genetic level or liberally doused with Agent Orange. Not because I’m an organic snob who reckons foods raised the old-fashioned way are worth the price hike (the old-fashioned way, in this case, being pre-traditional), but because no one really knows the potential hazards of ingesting such combinations.
I’m no scientist, but we know from previous experience what happens when one upsets just one small part of an organic system, whether it be a single organism or an entire ecology. Problems snowball and we wonder what happened. Then inevitably things start dying, often including us.
One step that might be in the right direction is a new food decontamination process that uses low-energy beams of electrons rather than chemicals or heat. Australia’s largest research agency CSIRO is teaming up with two German organisations, Fraunhofer Institute for Electron Beam and Plasma Technology and service company, EVONTA-Service GmbH, to investigate the use of such beams in decontaminating powdered foodstuffs, as well as fresh produce.
“It helps retain foods’ fresh flavour, odour and nutrients, which can be damaged by traditional heat treatment or by applying chemicals,” said CSIRO scientist, Dr Kai Knoerzer. “As a result of this international partnership, CSIRO will lead the development and application of low-energy electron beam processing in the Australian food industry.”
This certainly is promising news. Especially if CSIRO discovers that messing with food on an atomic level is perfectly safe. If it also provides an organic vegetable that doesn’t look like it might attack small animals, I’ll also be gracing my shopping bag with organic more often.
Stefan Abrutat is an award-winning freelance writer, blogger and editor in a wide variety of fields, from sports to science, the philosophy of science, humourism, history, travel and food. Image by justin (Justin Hall)