Whose Side Are You On?

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The agribusiness establishment has just made some unexpected new friends -- feathered ones, according to a paper published by scientists at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, who explain:

"We showed that when given free choice, wild birds opt for the conventional food over the organic, and the most likely explanation is its higher protein content.

"This study is only looking at one aspect of the organic food debate -- it does not take into account the long-term health implications of using chemical fertilisers and pesticides, or the often negative environmental impact of conventional farming; for example, other work has shown that pesticides can strongly reduce availability of seeds for birds.

"But it does raise questions about the nutritional benefits of organic food and what consumers are being led to believe."

But do birds really know what's best for them in the long run? In increasing their ability to survive the winter, are they unwittingly shortening their lives with pesticide residues, which of course can vary? Pet birds may become too fond of (fatty) seeds for their own good.

Swiss and Austrian laboratory rats are able to detect biscuits made with organic and conventional flour. Unlike the birds, they prefer organic food, though their criteria may be flavor rather than nutritional differences.

Do we follow our bipedal orientation or our mammalian heritage? What does it mean that many non-humans are able to discriminate between organic and conventional food better than people can? Animal choice studies might be fun for science journalists and bloggers, but real life decisions are a patchwork of products and issues. This site of the USDA and reports like this from Consumers Union (and other respected nonprofits) suggest some of those issues.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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