10 July 2016

The Wrath of Grapes - An Experiment in Denial

I like a good thought experiment every once in a while. But I discovered they can be a bit scary as well as instructive.

My favourite thought experiment was when I tried to picture being a big-time capitalist, someone for whom profit and money (and greed) are everything. It was fascinating. After I (in my imagination) let go of all the things I -- and many other so-called progressives, or lefties -- care about (you know, children, other species, future generations, just some small things), I was left with visceral excitement at the thought of making money. Truly, my imaginary profits made me feel like the winner in a game.

The thrill was an addictive feeling! Suddenly I understood why people who don't have a deep bond with the rest of Nature, who don't give much of a flying leap about their children's future, who wouldn't understand when I say "I love the butterflies" act the way they do. Because what the hell else do they have to live for? To them, life is a game, and if life is a game, then they might as well be winners rather than losers. And big winners, too. Sadly, this globalized attitude is making losers of all of us, but at least I understand it now.

Imagine my shock when I was the subject of an unintended thought experiment -- and learned viscerally what it's like to be a denier of a new truth. And I'm not talking about paid shills, touts, ringers, abettors and accomplices of the fossil fuel industries. No, I mean the people who deny the climate is changing (or that we're changing the climate) because they cannot abide the thought (it collides with what they've always known to be true -- I mean, things have been going along pretty tickety boo their whole life, haven't they?). [They probably don't even know that the climate has indeed been stable for the last 10,000 years, allowing the invention of agriculture to take hold and the population of humans on the Earth to increase dramatically.] They cannot allow in the possibility (it's too scary, for heaven's sake; just don't even go there; if we ignore it, it'll go away, right?). Nor do they use their critical thinking skills when presented with the evidence (that's because many of people never develop critical thinking skills or scientific literacy).

So here's what happened to me. We were enjoying a birthday lunch with a wonderful friend earlier this week. Somehow the conversation moved to the epidemic of food waste around the world and what some countries are doing about it. From there, we made our way to the topic of organic food and the notion that there are some fruits and vegetables one should never buy and eat unless they're organic. 

"Like grapes!" I piped up. I can proudly say, with visions of Cesar Chavez in my head, that I haven't eaten an un-organic grape in decades. 

"Grapes aren't on the list anymore," said my friend. 

That was it. As my stomach lurched, I went into a kind of out-of-body experience, watching myself go into full-body visceral denial. "Yeah," he continued, "the magazine Consumer Reports created a chart of which conventionally grown fruits and veggies we can eat if they're from certain countries." 

Najlah Feanny/Corbis
Yeah, sure, I thought to myself. Grapes? Those luscious orbs of sweet, delicious juiciness not dripping with pesticides? No way. If Cesar Chavez taught me nothing else (and there was much he had to teach), he taught me not to trust produce grown and harvested by oppressed, underpaid, gassed and poisoned farm workers. Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW) union ... that was all happening during my most sensitive and absorptive years, my childhood and early teens. Something that was so inculcated -- that conventionally grown grapes poison not just the eaters but the planters and the pickers and their children, too -- well, it had to be true. 

And how could something that was so true then not still be true now? (See the acrobatics my mind and soul were going through to defend myself against this attack on a deep-rooted knowing?)

"Hmmph," was about all I could splutter. "Where's the evidence?" He made a copy of the chart for me, but my eyes couldn't focus on it. My mind was racing back through those years of not eating grapes when I could have. How long ago did this situation change? Worse, how could it have changed without me knowing? When did Cesar Chavez and the UFW win and I didn't notice? OMG, I didn't know if I was embarrassed, saddened, bittersweetly happy -- I just knew I felt challenged to my very core, er, pips. 

It took me days to work up the nerve to finally take a good look at the chart. Yup, according to Consumer Reports, I can trust the safety of conventionally grown (why is it "conventional" to spray poison on our food?) grapes as long as they come from Chile, Peru, Mexico or the United States. Peaches, nectarines, tangerines, apples (except from New Zealand), strawberries and cranberries; green beans, peppers (sweet and hot), sweet potatoes and carrots -- that's the list of ten foods to "always buy organic" no matter where they come from. This is produce you're better off not eating if you can't eat organic. And grapes are not on that shortlist. (By the way, the chart is found in a special report entitled Eat the Peach, Not the Pesticide: A Shopper's Guide.)

Please note: Organic food growers are not paying me to promote organics or to feel yucky about eating produce that used to kill farm workers. So I'm a garden variety denier -- with some critical thinking skills. I therefore decided to dig a bit deeper. I came across a USDA Dirty Dozen list that rates produce on a scale of least to most pesticide residue. I've known about this list for ages -- and always just assumed that grapes were on the list. Well, it turns out they are on the list: #11 - imported grapes. What? I can trust Californian grapes? Really?
"Why are some types of produce more prone to sucking up pesticides than others? Richard Wiles, senior vice president of policy for the Environmental Working Group says, 'If you eat something like a pineapple or sweet corn, they have a protection defense because of the outer layer of skin. Not the same for strawberries and berries.'"
Well, grapes are pretty thin-skinned. Okay, maybe not like berries, but still. (See what my denier mind is doing? Bargaining! One of the stages of grieving. Yikes.)
"Remember, the lists of dirty and clean produce were compiled after the USDA washed the produce using high-power pressure water systems that many of us could only dream of having in our kitchens."
Ha! There, see? (I'm cherry picking from a PBS blog there, looking for evidence to shore up my belief system.) Ooh, I would have made a good climate change denier, had I not spent the last quarter of a century living with one of the world's holistically sharpest minds on the climate science.

Anyway, folks, I just wanted to share with you that I have new empathy and compassion for deniers (of the unpaid ilk). It's tough, eh, when a new truth comes along that upsets the (organic or conventional?) apple cart of what you knew to be foundational truth. 

I think I'll probably keep paying the premium for organic grapes (who does it hurt?), but I'd like to encourage climate change deniers to hop on the apple cart and simply start learning and talking about climate disruption and what it is going to mean for your children and grandchildren -- and their food security.

And don't feed your loved ones peaches this summer unless you know they're organic!

from Consumer Reports Special Report: Pesticides in Produce

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