The coolest thing (subjectively coolest, there’s a lot I haven’t experienced) to come out of translated comic books in the past year and a half has got to be the foodie epic Oishinbo. Every episode I learn more about Japanese cuisine, sake, fried foods, soy beans, and all manner of delightful concoctions illustrated in immaculate detail. The scruffy protagonist, his cute-as-a-button co-worker/acquaintance/girlfriend/fiance/wife, overbearing know-it-all dad, and a delightful cast of other characters also make the comic one of the most entertaining comics currently published. Each story arc is about as subtle as an episode of Cheers, but interpersonal relationships are very nuanced, and that’s something that I’ve come to appreciate over the past two months of actually getting my hands on all the Oishinbo: a la carte collections published by Viz Media.
One of the things I find most interesting about the world of Oishinbo is its constant soap-box style lecture. This is especially apparent in Oishinbo: Vegetables, where every subject the crew talks about is, of course, about vegetables, and why organic produce is amazing and other produce is bad. Not only is it terrible to not be Japanese, but woe unto you if you ever ate food that was non-organic, or grew it. As David Welsh so eloquently puts it:
… if you [grow vegetables] wrong, you will kill every living creature on the planet and blight the habitat for centuries to come, not even to mention how bad they’ll taste during your last, miserable hours of life.
Yes, for Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki, organic, free range, natural, and pesticide and herbicide free is the only way to eat foods. And while this is a noble goal to serve up to the Oishinbo reader’s platter, it doesn’t necessarily equate to what American’s call “organic.” Why talk about organic food instead of manga this week? Because, manga fans, sometimes you need to look outside the unflipped box.
Organic in Oishinbo is most likely referring to farming that is a holistic, ecologically-balanced, pesticide and herbicide free manner of growing crops that is reminiscent of farming before synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides started gaining widespread use in the 1940s. This, unfortunately, is not the way “organic” produce is grown in the USA.
Being “organic” means that a farmer has developed an organic plan and has received organic licensure from the state in which he or she operates. This license allows producers to label their products as “organic,” but doesn’t necessarily prevent these producers from using pesticides and herbicides. Chemicals derived from plants (it’s natural, it can’t harm people, can it?) are still allowed to be used on organic produce. These chemicals include pyrethrins, derived from chrysanthemum, and rotenone, which is derived from Florida fishpoison tree (no, I’m not making that name up). Both classes of chemicals are highly toxic to fish, annelids, and natural insect life (as well as insect pests that eat produce), and rotenone is a wonderful compound that causes Parkinson’s disease. Other organic chemicals that can be used for produce management include elemental copper and sulfur. This is not to suggest that synthetic pesticides are non-harmful, but rather, that “organic” doesn’t mean “pesticide-free.”
Now this is not a jab at Oishinbo, but rather a cautionary tale about the nature of American industry. It’s my opinion that many people are confused by what organic “should” mean and what it “actually” means in the USA and other developed nations that have an organic license program. Organic seems like it should mean “clean, safe, non-harmful, and tasty.” The fact of the matter is, most organic producers are using pesticides, and many are using high quantities of manure to fertilize crops (which itself is an E. coli O157:H7 risk, even if the produce is washed).
If you want to make absolutely certain that your produce is “Oishinbo organic,” which is a noble and healthy goal, do yourself a favor and start your own garden. The hobby is something that gives back, is tasty, and can be a very rewarding experience. Just don’t expect to have the prettiest produce you’ve ever seen.
PS: Chicken cures dementia.
For the purpose of disclosure, I grew up on a farm that utilizes synthetic chemical pesticides and herbicides. I have attempted to give an unbiased, factual account of the state of organic foods in the USA.