Thought experiment

Say you have two apples. The first is local, organic, sustainable, grown on a family farm and delivered to your neighborhood farmer’s market by a smiling Johnny Appleseed. The second was grown with GMO seeds and pesticides by the farm-industrial complex and sold to a big box supermarket.

However. Nutritionally, chemically, down to the atom, the apples are identical. They had identical impacts on the environment. All workers involved were paid the same living wage and treated equally. As far as their effects on the world, and on your body when you eat them, the apples are indistinguishable.

Is the organic apple still “better” somehow? If so, how?

Yes, I know this is impossible. It’s a thought experiment. Not a politically correct one, granted, but humor me. I obviously have my own opinion, but I’m sincerely curious what you all think. Is there an inherent, ineffable righteousness to local-organic-sustainable? Or is it just the concrete differences to nutrition (if any), environment, and socioeconomics that matter? We’re working toward eliminating those differences, but will that ever be enough?

Which apple would you choose, and why?


38 thoughts on “Thought experiment

  1. The question is really about the circle of attention that you care about. Do you just care about your body, and the effect that the apple has on it, or do you care about the wider context?

    Yes, the workers were paid the same wage and treated equally, and yes, the environmental impact was the same, according to the parameters you’ve set up here.

    For me, it’s not so much whether there’s a righteousness about local-organic-sustainable, but this forces us to ask questions about the kind of world we want to live in. Do we want to live in a world where the market is sealed up by a comparatively small number of giant corporations, and seeds are controlled by patents and licenses, or do we want to live in a world where anyone can create their own farm, and sell to their neighborhood?

    I’ll take the latter in a heartbeat. There has been, in my opinion, a lot of good that has come from global commerce and the efficiencies of large entities. However, there’s been a lot of bad too, and a lot of those abstracted efficiencies are no longer necessary in the age of the Internet and accessible technology. Decentralized commerce is decentralized commerce, and a more equal culture. I’m down with that.

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  2. For me, the apple at the farmer’s market is better because I want to support small businesses as much as possible. Just like I prefer to buy a birthday card at stores like Perch, compared to Walgreens, or food from Canyon Market instead of Safeway.

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  3. Firstly, I challenge your premise that each apple’s effects on the world are indistinguishable. The organic apple was grown using natural fertilizers which means that horse poo or bat poo or compost was used which also means that those three substances which ordinarily would just rot and be wasted were instead used, recycled if you will. The apple treated with pesticides means that those chemicals were released into the environment doing lord knows what sort of damage. Also take Honeycrisp apples for example, Washington produces honeycrisps when they are in season here in America, New Zealand also produces them and exports them. Both offer an “organic” version of the honeycrisp. Either way, the fuel required to import and distribute from New Zealand has much more environmental impact than the fuel required to transport and distribute from Washington. Secondly, the organic apple probably actually has some good bacteria and other microorganisms and enzymes occupying it that are good for us. The other apple’s bacterial occupation will be nil because of the chemicals, which also likely denatured the enzymes in or on the apple. Will add more later though because my ride home from campus just got here.

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  4. Personally I’m much more concerned with locality than “organic”, primarily for energy intensity. Certain pesticides are a concern, but I’m comfortable using genetic technology, as well as some organic practices to control pests in a less toxic manner.But if they truly were identical on all the axes mentioned… it doesn’t matter.

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  5. thanks for the thoughtful reply, ben! i expect mostly knee jerk responses, and only a minority that actually engage, so i definitely appreciate it.

    i pretty much agree. like you, i believe that globalization and tech clearly have both benefits and drawbacks. we may differ a bit on details – for example, decentralized models can’t reproduce physical economies of scale as easily as digital ones, nor do they support deep specialization (e.g. R&D) as effectively – but at a high level, we’re on the same page.

  6. Kasey Mayberry, thanks for the reply! you’re right on all counts. i was asking a different question, though. yes, of course, GMO and organic apples are different in the real world. i said things like like “Thought experiment” and “I know this is impossible” to emphasize that this is make believe, fictional, not real. the question is, should we prefer organic-local-etc on principle? or purely for pragmatic reasons? if there was no difference in practice, should we still prefer it?

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  7. My morning coffee had apparently not taken hold, by the way – I meant “decentralized commerce is decentralized power”, as opposed to the weird tautology I actually wrote.

    I agree about physical economies of scale, although I wonder if there are ways to cooperatively achieve the same thing with smaller entities. R&D too, perhaps?

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  8. To make the basest, most selfish argument: local businesses require and promote local infrastructure and services, from which I can also benefit. The farm-industrial complex is far away and has no interest in improving my environment or investing in my community. Also talking to Smiling Johnny Appleseed will make my day better. :-)

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  9. It’s hard for me to engage on this question because I’m not sure what variable you are trying to isolate.

    If the apples are identical wrt their content, nutrition, effect on the environment, and their effect on all the people involved, what else could they vary on?

    For example, It’s especially hard for me to reason about what it could mean for a locally produced apple to have the same effect on the people involved. I would assume the people involved have some preference as to whether they work for a small or big company; close to home, or in some central location.

    Anyway, I can’t accept the premise at a bigger level. If these two apples were identical on all these axes, then fine. But in reality, these are two dramatically different systems and they will tend to optimize for different end results. I prefer the local apple because I believe that the system it comes from will tend to make better choices than the system the centrally produced apple comes from.

  10. The question is funny. It’s almost like: “Assume two apples are the same, except for the name, is one better?” I agree with Kasey’s response. If the question is whether people should live by principles with no valid rationale, my answer is “no, mindless ideology is, at best, a waste of time and, at worst, an obstacle to human survival.” So I think I agree with where you’re coming from. If the question is whether local farmers are better than global corporations, my answer is “often.” Same as Kasey and Alon, assuming equal environmental and social footprints, local businesses are more trustworthy as stewards of the land and community – in part because publicly traded companies are legally required to focus on a single bottom line of profits over the short term, and in part because customers can see what local farmers are doing to the land, and can hold them accountable. However, I do agree with your skepticism. I live in Abu Dhabi, where local food is Not the answer: in most cases it’s more efficient to grow food in more fertile climates, and ship it in.

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  11. thanks for the response, aaron! you’re right, i should have been clearer about my motivations. i was actually trying to isolate all the variables, ie i’m asking if provenance alone (organic-local vs GMO-corporate) matters in principle, even if in practice there’s no difference.

    as a corollary, some people believe that nature and “natural” things are inherently better than unnatural things, regardless of whether they differ in practice. it’s an axiomatic principle for them. i was interested in the same question here.

    but yeah, it’s really really hard to separate all of the interrelationships in my mind too, even in fairy tale make-believe land.

  12. The purpose of an organic apple vs a GMO apple is the GMO increases productivity by engaging in a destructive relationship with its environment in order to maximize favorable conditions for the apple. The organic apple produces a smaller net yield, but is not as ecologically destructive. By definition cultivation is ecological destruction, so there is no absolute break even point, and there is no proverbial man in a white hat. That being said, if the apple itself was molecularly the same regardless of cultivation method I would say that either the GMO apple had not done its job, or the organic apple was extraordinarily toxic to its environment. Now, as to which apple is better given the above deductions, the GMO apple would be better simply because a higher yield means more productivity for a worker per dollar spent.

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  13. I’d add, the point of buying local isn’t just some tribalism. The point is that a lot of innovation has happened locally, bring back heirloom breeds. I’d like to support more innovation, because even if the apples are identical today, there’s more upside in the local/organic farmer.

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  14. I never worry about “buying local”, and just go for what gives me best price/quality. I have no desire to subsidize inefficient local producers. If I buy a $3 worth of non-local apples, instead of $5 worth of local … then I have another $2 to use for savings or for additional purchases within my local economy. Note that that $3 does go to a local retailer. But I could also have $2 go to another local retailer, supporting more facets of the local economy. Conversely, it also provides incentives for local producers to become more efficient (on whatever axis) in order to gain my business.

    In short, I believe “buy local” creates inefficiencies (aka waste) in the local producers. That cannot be beneficial for my local economy.

    (and yes, I realize that I’m the sole commenter against the “local” movement… but I just put on my asbestos suit, so should be reasonably okay…)

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  15. Greg, FWIW, I completely agree. For instance, in New York, they have laws where you can only own one liquor store and have to live within 10 miles of it. This is “local”, but it doesn’t get at why I like local: actually fostering a connection. It’s not about proximity, it’s about connection. And so when places offer me proximity but no connection, I don’t care about them.

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  16. Kasey: when you buy from Walmart, you are paying the 200 store employee’s salaries… which then go to “dance lessons”, and a “team jersey”, food, mortages, and colleges. But buying at Walmart saved you $23, compared to the “mom or pop business”, so you take that down the street and fill up at Exxon. The franchise owner can then pay his 5 employees, who pay for “dance lessons”, a “team jersey”, … You offer a false dichotomy. Buying products is not “pay CEO” versus “pay mom&pop” … there is a lot more going on. It isn’t as simple as you’re trying to reduce it to. Further, you are trying to paint the CEO in an evil light, but remember: the CEO of Walmart (to go back to that example) is responsible for employing 2.2 MILLION people. I say: if you are good enough to run a successful company to keep 2.2 million people employed… KUDOS to you. Very few people can do that. And those few should be rewarded for their incredible talents.

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  17. If every mom and pop shop were more specialized and each employed ten people with better wages than walmart, demand would grow for more, then more people would have more mom and pop shops that competed with each other, enabling a larger middle class and a poorer upper class. I don’t see why that’s a bad idea. Maybe it would be better for five hundred thousand tiny shops to each employ ten people than for one huge corporation to employ 2.2 million people.

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  18. I have no problem using Walmart as an example. They save US citizens (and others around the world) MANY millions of dollars of their hard-earned money. Your example doesn’t hold. The “demand” you refer to is for higher wages. It says nothing about the products/services for sale, and demand for such. The mom & pop stores must sell stuff to consumers, and they must do it better than Walmart. In terms of price, quality, service, or a personal “connection” as Dan mentioned.

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  19. In my opinion and from what I’ve read about Wal-Mart, the cons of the company outweigh the pros. Especially in the arena of public funds (be it tax dollars or average household savings). Plus, the financial problems that American citizens face are much more complicated than how much money one business can save them… As the system exists now, yes Wal-Mart is helpful for many people, but it also doesn’t help a lot of people and long term, big picture, I’m convinced that it’s bad. And I’m not saying I’m anti-capitalist either. Also with regards to the millions people have saved at Wal-Mart… Have they really? They turn around and face higher taxes, which then are used to subsidize Wal-Mart. Plus they often end up with an inferior product. Are you a small business owner? Do you know what it’s like to compete with a company like that? Do you know how unfair and bankrupting the tax burdens on small business owners are versus corporations who get subsidies or tax breaks because they are in bed with legislators? Your idea that mom and pop shops, which are the actually in the spirit of the American Dream, should or could be able to effectively compete with a store like Wal-Mart is ludicrous, heartless, and naive.

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  20. No worries. :-) … the gist of what you’re saying is more important that the words and the spelling :-P

    There is a lot in your questions, and I think it best to talk about those over beers with Ryan, rather than monkeying up his wall :-) … but for one of your last points: yes, I have co-founded a small company (back in the early 90’s) and know what that is like, and how tough it can be. And then I think you called me naive; not so sure about that :-P and will disregard the personal anyways.

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  21. No no, the wording in the last part was important. Lol. The idea was naive IMHO, not you as a person. I’m sure that would be a lively time, but sadly I live in Houston, Tx. Lol. Although I will be in California for a week in May, but in SoCal visiting some family in LA.

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  22. “Since the introduction of genetically engineered foods in 1996, we’ve had an upsurge in low birth weight babies, infertility, and other problems in the U.S., and animal studies have shown devastating effects from genetically engineered soy including allergies, sterility, birth defects, and offspring death rates up to five times higher than normal.”

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  23. reminds me of one of my favorite graphs ever!

    sadly, correlation isn’t causation. too many other things have changed over the last 20 years to draw any clear conclusions for any one thing in particular (e.g. GMO).

    the animal studies sound more compelling. i was under the impression that we didn’t yet have clear, accepted research showing problems due to GMO food. i’ll have to look those studies up. got a link?

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